Keeping the Faith
By Karl Wentzel
Kat Arthur, photographed by Dina Douglass,
North Hollywood, Fall 1982
August 1985. It had been a short flight from Phoenix, and now the sprawling sea of lights that is Los Angeles on a summer night was shimmering through the smog below. I had been into punk rock, mostly the southern California variety, for 5 years. Most of the punk bands that I knew of were from somewhere down there.
Somebody once said that Americans, especially southern Californians, wouldn't make very good punk rockers. They had it too good. Not much to complain about. But L.A. has Hollywood, where just about anything can be put on. Hollywood had its own punk scene, sort of a subset of the larger L.A. punk culture. Hollywood was L.A. punk at its most outlandish, with the intermingled grit and grime and glitz of its famous thoroughfares- Hollywood, Sunset, Highland, and Melrose long a magnet for the sort of rebels, junkies, and social outcasts that populated the punk scene. Many of these streets was home to a memorable punk venue- the Cathay De Grande on Argyle, Anti Club on Melrose, Zero Zero on Cahuenga, and the much beloved birthplace of L.A punk, The Masque, just off Hollywood Boulevard on Cherokee. It was from this scene that many of L.A.'s most memorable bands, and characters, emerged.
As my flight pulled into the gate at LAX, I recalled all the times I had arrived at airports as a kid. Most times someone, usually a relative, would be waiting for me at the gate, or at curbside in a waiting car. That was always an exciting moment.
I was no less excited this time. On this night, the lady who came to greet me, the one with the waiting car, was Kat Arthur- not just the greatest lady punk rock singer in L.A., but perhaps the best female rock singer the town had seen since Janis Joplin arrived nearly 2 decades earlier. Joplin had come from the Texas town of Port Arthur, a coincidence that was not lost on me, for Kat could sing like Janis could- a big, raspy, freight train of a voice that ranged from a sultry purr to a primal scream- a voice that stood out in a music scene that was not generally known for virtuoso musicianship or technical prowess.
The west coast punk scene did have some memorable, and colorful, female voices. Punk had provided a platform for aggressive, strong willed women like Alice Armendariz of the Bags, De DeTroit of UXA, and of course Exene Cervenka of X, whose album "Los Angeles" had brought national attention to L.A. punk in 1980- but Kat Arthur had the strongest voice of them all, and in the L.A. punk scene of the early to mid 1980s, I considered her a larger than life figure.
Upon hearing I planned on being in L.A. that night, Kat graciously offered to pick me up at the airport. After I arrived, I made my way toward the curb area outside. Wading through the crowd, not sure where she'd meet me, I soon heard her distinctive voice. "There he is!" She had seen me first. She was there with 2 other people- drummer Adam Maples (who drove) and "road mistress" Annie Pearce. I had met them all a few years earlier in Phoenix and was glad to see them again. Kat greeted me with a hug and a kiss. Her friendly, outgoing nature was a sharp contrast to her often rough and tumble lifestyle.
Katherine Arthur was already an incorrigable hellion at 13, an early 1970s delinquent who lived the sort of rebellious life that would be reflected in her songs years later. A car thief in her early teens, she'd disappear from her New Jersey home and go on joyrides in stolen cars that would take her to various drunken misadventures far afield in New York. After spending time in boarding schools and having some run-ins with the law, Kat arrived in California in 1975. After finishing high school in San Diego the following year, she moved up the coast to Los Angeles and attended Pepperdine University for a few semesters. By 1976 the L.A. punk scene was just beginning, with early bands The Screamers, The Dickies, The Skulls, and The Alley Cats already active.
Whether early L.A. punk was a genuine movement or merely a copy of the earlier New York and London scenes has been the subject of some debate. The earliest L.A. punk bands- The Weirdos, The Dickies, The Screamers, etc., were obviously influenced by the punk records that had been released by late 1976, most notably The Ramones' debut album.
Within a short time, however, the L.A. punk scene found its own voice, producing a sound that was uniquely west coast- an upper middle class variation of punk which incorporated aspects of punk's first wave with a warped take on the southern California lifestyle- a cynical attitude toward materialism, consumerism, and apathy, often drawing on aspects of California surf culture and Hollywood B movie imagery.
Kat had wanted to be a singer since she was 7 years old, and had been singing in rock bands since she was 15. By 1978 she had been frequenting the punk clubs around L.A. for 2 years, and had experienced the raw energy of this odd subspecies of rock music. One of the best remembered female-fronted bands of the time, San Francisco's Avengers, with vocalist Penelope Houston, was a big influence on the then 20 year old Arthur. Another of Kat's favorite bands of the era was Britain's X Ray Spex, whose lead singer Poly Styrene had a distinctive vocal style that Kat once told me she imitated early in her punk career.
Kat would soon make her own debut as a punk singer when she joined The Silencers, a band formed by bassist/songwriter Steve Reina in 1978. Reina and drummer Robert Alverez were auditioning guitarists and settled on Kat's longtime companion Brian Hansen, who suggested to Reina that Kat, whom Brian had met 3 years earlier in high school in San Diego, would make a good vocalist for the band.
After hearing Kat's tremendous voice in the audition, Reina knew immediately he had found his new singer. The Silencers were soon regulars at the popular punk clubs of the time, appearing at such venues as The Hong Kong Cafe, Cuckoo's Nest, and King's Palace, alongside most of L.A's early crop of punk bands, including Black Flag, X, The Gears, and The Plugz. Soon after joining the band, Kat's piercing vocals were getting The Silencers noticed.
The band went into the studio and recorded an album's worth of material, and the ambitious Reina shopped the tape to various record labels. Although the Silencers had acquired a following in Hollywood and Reina believed the band was on the verge of getting signed, Kat and Brian abruptly left the band in 1980. The Silencers folded. Steve Reina was dumbfounded when the two didn't show up for a band practice one day. Kat was apparently a bit ambitious herself, and had ideas of her own. When Reina went to Kat and Brian's house, they informed him that they had other plans.
Kat had approached another L.A. punk scenester, statuesque, raven haired Patricia Morrison, about forming a new band.
Morrison, usually dressed in black and one of the originators of the "Goth" look, had been involved in punk since 1976, and was already something of a veteran, having played bass in The Bags, a band so named because they would take the stage wearing bags over their heads. The bag-wearing routine lasted only a few performances, but the name stuck. The Bags, co-founded by Morrison with singer Alice Armendariz, had achieved some notoriety in L.A., releasing the single "Survive" and appearing in the landmark documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization"- but personality conflicts and creative differences led Morrison to leave the Bags, and when Kat caught up with her she was working at the Returns counter at a department store.
Morrison agreed to join Kat and Brian, and the new band, to be called Legal Weapon, was born in mid 1980. Years later, Kat would say in an interview that she settled on the name after reading a poem called "Words are Weapons"- a legal form of weaponry. With Patricia's friend Charlie Vartanian completing the lineup on drums, Legal Weapon was soon a fixture at the various punk clubs of the day- The Hong Kong, The Whisky, The Starwood, and San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens.
The nucleus of Legal Weapon would always be Kat Arthur on vocals and Brian Hansen on guitar, but the other positions in the band would be a virtual revolving door, with no fewer than 20 musicians, at times seeming like a who's who of the L.A. punk scene, coming and going in the ensuing 2 decades.
The first time I heard of Legal Weapon was in the summer of 1981. The fledgling USA cable network began airing New Wave Theater, a low rent cable access type show which had been produced in L.A. since late 1980. Many notable L.A. punk bands would appear on the show during its 2 years of production, and Legal Weapon was among the first. The original lineup of Kat, Brian, Patricia, and Charlie made their national TV debut on the program less than a year after the band's inception. Legal Weapon's performance was memorable: performing the song "Hostility", Kat was still singing in that put-on Poly Styrene-inspired British accent from her Silencers days, and was clad in what was something of a trademark outfit for her- a medium length skirt over tights with a blouse and jacket. The English accent and demeanor was so convincing I assumed she was a Brit. I hadn't heard her speaking voice yet. On one of LW's later New Wave Theater appearances, host Peter Ivers asked during a post-song interview one of those dumb questions he always asked. "Are you familiar with the Chinese myth of a snake eating its own tail?" Kat responded in her husky New Jersey voice: "I am not into Chinese". Then I knew she was not British. I think her dad was, though.
Kat's ferocious vocal style had been a hit at Silencers shows over the previous 2 years, and her performances with Legal Weapon solidified her reputation as one of L.A.'s most spectacular hard rock singers.
On the way to Kat and Brian's place from the airport, I'm in the backseat with Kat, and she's talking a mile a minute. "I'm trying to quit smoking", she admits. "So I'm a little jumpy". She fills me in about LW's latest exploits, including their new album at the time, "Interior Hearts", and a show the band turned down that night at the venerable Cathay de Grande. It was the Cathay's last night. Kat flatters me by saying Legal Weapon would have played the gig if she had known sooner that I would be in town that night. She sure made me feel welcome.
We arrived at Kat's Hollywood apartment, which she shared with Brian, a 1920s era building on Whitley overlooking the 101 near the Hollywood Bowl. The surrounding Whitley Heights was once home to many a silent age movie star, including Wallace Beery, who Kat says once lived in the same apartment she and Brian occupied. By the mid 1980s the building had begun to look a bit decrepit. The electrical system was so antiquated that the building was prone to fires. One would break out the week I was there, sending Kat rushing inside to rescue her dogs (we had just returned from a Minutemen show at the Anti Club), and more than a year later a much bigger fire would gut the building, destroying many of Kat and Brian's belongings.
It's pizza night at the Whitley apartment. Kat is all dolled up for a night out with the gang. Looking a little like a movie star herself, she's wearing a ring in the pierced left lobe of her nose. She tells me that her nose was pierced some time earlier by none other than underground provocateur Lydia Lunch. Kat shows me a small stack of her favorite records. Looking through them, I see her influences, all of them punk classics: "I'm Stranded" by The Saints, "Germfree Adolescents" by X Ray Spex, "Raw Power" by The Stooges, and the debut "pink" album by the Avengers. She also pulls out a copy of Legal Weapon's first record, "No Sorrow". Kat asks me if I have a copy of LW's rare debut EP. I'm proud to say I do. Only 500 copies of the 12" 45 RPM disc were pressed. A copy in good condition is worth nearly $200 now.
"No Sorrow", an 8-track recording essentially recorded live in the studio, was completed in late 1981, and released in early 1982. The 5 song record has a rough, almost unrehearsed feel to it, which may sound dated to some listeners. It is, however, an interesting artifact from a time when the L.A. punk scene was at its zenith. The title track was one of Kat's favorite songs of LW's early period. Its lyrics, about the "crazy life" she's chosen, were obviously autobiograpical. The first time I saw LW's live performance they played the song twice in the same set, and they would record a new version of it for their debut full length album: "Death of Innocence".
Released in the summer of 1982, "Death of Innocence" is, to many, Legal Weapon's punk masterpiece. The songwriting and musicianship had improved noticably since "No Sorrow", which is impressive considering only about 5 months had elapsed between the release of LW's debut effort and the release of the much more ambitious "Death of Innocence". The fuller, more developed sound of the album was due in part to a lineup change: Patricia Morrison, always seeking new musical horizons, decided to leave Legal Weapon in mid 1981 (Morrison was far from finished with punk rock. She would soon join another legendary L.A band, The Gun Club- and would eventually join The Damned, one of the all time great punk groups). Steve Soto and Frank Agnew of the recently splintered Adolescents then joined on bass and rythym guitar. Producer Thom Wilson, who had crafted records for such L.A. punk luminaries as TSOL, The Vandals, and The Adolescents, was hired to create the explosive, brooding soundscape that characterized Legal Weapon's debut LP.
The album opens with the 2 song outburst "Future Heat" and "Waiting in Line", and then simmers down with the title track "Death of Innocence". It's on the title song where it becomes apparent- for those who didn't already know- that Kat Arthur is more than just a screamer. She can really sing and carry a tune. Most of the album's songs, though, are straight ahead, roaring punk rock- the sound Kat and Legal Weapon were best at. The album continues with "Out of Control", an old Silencers song that found its way into LW's set, and a new version of "Daddy's Gone Mad" (an earlier recording of the song had been featured on the popular compilation album "Hell Comes to Your House" earlier in the year). Side 2 (yes, side 2- we're talking vinyl here) opens with 3 Legal Weapon classics: "Don't Pretend", a smoldering punk epic with disturbing lyrics and an abrasive guitar sound, the full-throttle "War Babies", which I think is the best song of Legal Weapon's punk era, and a new version of "No Sorrow" which had been the title song of LW's debut EP.
Kat Arthur's vocals were also improved since "No Sorrow"- the put-on British accent began to give away to the more husky, powerful voice that she would always be known for therafter. "Death of Innocence" established Arthur as one of the all time great lady punk singers. Critics would inevitably compare Legal Weapon to X, but I always thought Kat's voice was much stronger than Exene's. The songwriting also had become of a more intense, personal nature than the earlier record, as well as on most records being made in the L.A. punk scene at the time.
The band's sound continued to evolve on the next recording, "Your Weapon". Although the songs for the 3rd album were hastily written in the weeks prior to the late 1982 recording sessions, the writing on "Your Weapon" was the most emotional and expressive material Kat had yet penned. Frank Agnew and Steve Soto were already gone from the band before "Your Weapon" was recorded, and the band was once again a 4 piece. Years later, Frank Agnew told me that his and Soto's departure from the band was a simple matter of convenience; they found commuting from Orange County impractical, and living in North Hollywood wasn't agreeing with their pocketbooks. Drummer Adam Maples and bassist Eddie Wayne, formerly of the Orange County punk band Saigon, then joined as the band's new rythym section. Maples and Wayne were credited with background vocals on "Death of Innocence", but when Steve Soto and Frank Agnew left before the album's completion, Wayne finished the bass tracks on several songs.
Kat Arthur onstage at the Whisky A Go Go,
Hollywood, Fall 1982
Early Legal Weapon: Circa 1980. (L-R) Patricia Morrison, Brian Hansen, Kat Arthur. Drummer Charlie Vartanian is not pictured.
The Silencers: (L-R) Robert Alverez, Brian Hansen,
Kat Arthur, Steve Reina. Circa 1979.
Copyright Dina Douglass /
Copyright Dina Douglass /